Though small in size, Essential Spirits is global in reach and vision. Classick uses a hand-hammered copper still from France to produce rum made of Hawaiian molasses; the Italian drink grappa; and a German spirit not familiar to many Americans: bierschnaps, a distilled spirit made from beer and possessing a distinctly beery aroma and aftertaste.
Essential Spirits was founded in 1998, but Classick and his wife began working on the business a few years earlier. Classick had been working in the software industry for decades and had become dismayed with the increasing emphasis that was being placed on speeding up production. He was looking to start a business and leave the fast and frenzied life of high-tech behind.
After tasting the brandy produced by well-known Mendocino County distiller Hubert Germain-Robin, he and his wife got to thinking. "We looked at that and thought, 'You know, coffee roasteries are happening; micro breweries are happening; we live in one of the biggest wine- and fruit-producing regions of the world,'" Classick says, explaining the reasoning that led to the founding of Essential Spirits.
After making his way through a web of red tape with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and jumping through hoops to assure the Mountain View City Council that he could operate his still safely, Classick got ready to produce his first batch of spirits, which he originally thought would be a vodka. He went to ask a local brewer for some help and advice, since the process of making vodka begins much the same way as brewing beer.
"The guy who was working over there happened to be a Bavarian, and he said: 'Oh, it's too bad you can't make bierschnaps like we used to get over in Bavaria.' And I said: 'Bierschnaps? Tell me more!'" Classick recalls.
Classick began producing bierschnaps — at one point partnering with the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company before the brand grew larger and ended its affiliation.
Unlike Sierra Nevada, Classick says he has no intention to grow the company much beyond its current size. However, after following up his bierschnaps with another somewhat obscure product — grappa — he decided he ought to try his hand at a more mainstream liquor. But even in his effort to go mainstream, Classick insisted on taking an alternate route: producing rum, which is not as popular as vodka or whiskey, and choosing to make it with molasses from Hawaii, not from the Caribbean, where most other rum is sourced.
The Vietnam veteran says he developed a special bond with Hawaii over the course of his deployment. "On the way to Vietnam, I went through Hawaii and then I came through Hawaii on my way back, and just fell in love with the islands."
When he began looking into producing rum, he came to understand that due to the island's long history with Christian missionaries, rum production had long been discouraged in Hawaii. Classick insists that his rum, with its hints of volcanic soil and Pacific Ocean sunlight, is unlike any other you will taste.
Whether a discerning palate can detect those qualities in the rum — named Sergeant Classick's in honor of the distiller's military rank — all of the products produced at Essential Spirits are quite evidently made with care.
Sergeant Classick's rum is smooth and evenly toned; the vodka he produces for the Tahoe Blue label has little bite, even at room temperature; and the bierschnaps has a zesty, hoppy finish that any pale ale fan will likely enjoy.
While Classick is willing and proud to accept some of the credit for his product, he also insists that his still deserves recognition. "It's the only still like it in North or South America," he says, explaining the inner workings of a filtration component called an "analyzer," which catches impurities and pulls them out of the steam during the distillation process. Many small stills don't have one, and the ones that do rarely work the same way his does.
He explains the trick in language that reveals his scientific background. While most analyzers allow a fair amount of the impure condensation to drip back down to the bottom, where they may be once again turned to steam and perhaps make it through to the finished product, his still's analyzer whisks the impurities away, ensuring that they don't end up in the bottle, he says.
"You can drink as much as you want of these products and no headaches, no hangovers," Classick claims, with the caveat that the drinker must stay sufficiently hydrated in the process. "They're enormously pure, and that's because of the construction of this still."
Whether they're hangover-proof or not, it's clear that Classick takes great care in the production of his spirits. The secret to his success may be in the blending of his scientific background and artistic intuition.
"It's a complex biochemical, chemical, and mechanical process. There's a lot of science you can bring," he says of the distilling process. "But it's still an art craft."
Classick shared stories about the mythology and history of distilling, explaining how Benedictine monks would age their brandy. Later he pulled out a pen and pad, giving an impromptu lesson on the physic of distilling.
"It's like cooking," he says. "You can give someone a recipe book, and they can follow a recipe, cross all the T's and dot all the I's — step by step, slavishly — but that doesn't guarantee they're going to get a result."
There is a humanity to Classick's method, and it's apparent in the quality of his products and the passion he displays in talking about his craft. You might just say his spirit comes through in his spirits.
Info: Essential Spirits Alambic Distillery is at 144 S. Whisman Road in Mountain View; products can be bought locally at the Whole Foods Market in Los Altos and at Ava's Downtown Market & Deli in Mountain View. Go to essentialspirits.com or call 650-962-0546.
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